The biggest gambles in World Series history

Mickey Stanley fields a throw as a shortstop during the 1968 World Series

The  modern World Series started in 1903 when the Boston Americans (later named the Red Sox) defeated the Pittsburg Pirates. That’s P-I-T-T-S-B-U-R-G without an “h” because it wasn’t until about 1910 that the city officially changed the spelling of its name.

Now that we’re done with our history and geography lessons, let’s turn to the Fall Classic. Here are the biggest gambles ever taken in the World Series.

1968: Mickey Stanley Moves from Center to Short

Luckily for Detroit manager Mayo Smith, the Tigers clinched the AL pennant with about two weeks left in the season. That gave him some time to experiment with an idea he had been noodling. His team had an excellent outfield that season: Willie Horton in left, Mickey Stanley in center, and Jim Northrup in right. His veteran star Al Kaline had missed almost two months with a broken arm. But with the team headed to the World Series, they needed to find a spot for Kaline in the lineup.

Smith knew that Stanley was the best athlete on his team, which is why he approached Mickey with an interesting idea. Would Mickey play shortstop during the World Series, clearing the way for Kaline in the outfield. Stanley agreed to try and played nine games in September at short, taking the place of Ray Oyler, who couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag.

Stanley played every game of the World Series at short against the heavily favored Cardinals, the defending champs. Mickey made a few misplays, but none of them led to runs, and he handled all the other work at short with professionalism. The Cardinals couldn’t actually believe Stanley wasn’t a shortstop. Detroit came back to win the last three games of the Series and Smith has been hailed as a coaching genius for his big gamble on the big stage.

1929: Connie Mack Hands Game One Ball to Howard Who?

It’s one thing to make a gutsy pitching decision because you have no choice, it’s another to do it because you’re taking a risk. By 1929, Connie Mack had been in professional baseball for nearly 50 years. The 67-year old former catcher was principal owner of the Philadelphia A’s. He’s pretty much seen it all. That’s probably why he had no problem making a jaw-dropping decision when he selected his starting pitcher in Game One of the World Series that fall against the Cardinals.

The A’s had Lefty Grove, a man who legitimately has an argument as the best pitcher in history. Grove was rested and ready for the Series, but Mack had a different idea. His scouts told him that the St. Louis lineup was filled with righthanded hitters who clobbered lefthanded pitching. Mack made the decision to not start his best pitcher, nor to start his other lefthanded ace, Rube Walberg as a starter. Instead he started Howard Ehmke.

If Howard Ehkme sounds like a name made up for the purpose of confusing the other team, I agree with you. But that’s who Mack started in Game One. Ehmke was a 35-year old who had only started eight games during the season. But Mack liked his sidearm delivery and he thought it would give the Cardinals a tough time. In those days, the NL and AL teams didn’t know each other that well or face each other during the regular season.

Ehmke made Mack look like a genius, setting a World Series record with 13 strikeouts in a Game One win. Grove and Walberg worked out of the bullpen during the series, which the A’s won in five games.

2014: Giants Summon Bumgarner from Bullpen in Game Seven

The 2014 Fall Classic between the Giants and Royals came down to the seventh game. The Giants best pitcher was lefty Madison Bumgarner, who won Games One and Five in dominating fashion. With two days between his last start, it wasn’t unusual to think Bumgarner might be available out of the bullpen in Game Seven, but no one was prepared for how he was used.

The Giants pulled out to a 3-2 lead after four innings, that’s when manager Bruce Bochy summoned Bumgarner from the bullpen. Most experts thought it was too soon: surely Bumgarner couldn’t pitch more than a couple innings after having pitched a complete game a few days earlier. But Bumgarner pitched five full innings, allowing only two baserunners. The Giants held on to the 3-2 lead and won their third title in five years.

1980: Phillies Start Two Rookie Pitchers

The 1980 Phils had one of the greatest pitchers of all-time in Steve Carlton. But the southpaw was unavailable to start Game One of the World Series because he’d pitched a few days earlier in the playoffs. Manager Dallas Green had a few options, the most likely being 17-game winner Dick Ruthven. But he elected an unorthodox approach.

Green handed the ball to rookie Bob Walk for Game One in Philly. Walk had been inconsistent all year, winning 11 games but with an ERA over 4.50 in 27 starts. The move looked pretty bad when Walk surrendered three home runs and six runs in seven innings. But, luckily for Green, his lineup wore with their hitting shoes. The Phillies won the game 7-6 and went on to defeat the Royals in six games. Green wasn’t afraid to take a chance: in Game Five with the series tied 2-2, he started another rookie, Marty Bystrom. The Phils won that game too.

1926: Bleary-eyed Alexander Pitches Against the Yankees in Game Seven

This incident plays a big part in the movie “The Winning Team”, a 951 movie starring Ronald Reagan as Pete Alexander, ace pitcher of the Cardinals.

By 1926, Grover Cleveland “Pete” Alexander was in the twilight of his fantastic career. He’d once won more than 30 games, garnered the pitching triple crown, been a pitching workhorse. But in 1926 he was 39 years old, in his first season with the Cardinals. He’d been brought in as a sort of hired gun to help push the Cards over the top.

In Game Seven the Yankees had the bases loaded in the seventh inning, the Cardinals were clinging to a 3-2 lead. That’s when St. Louis manager Rogers Hornsby waved Ol’ Pete in from the bullpen. Alexander had pitched a complete game to beat the Yankees the previous day. To compound it, Alexander was a heavy drinker, and after his win the day before, he had celebrated with a few bottles. His teammates observed that before Hornsby instructed him to warm up, Alexander had been sleeping off his hangover at the end of the bench.

The hangover didn’t seem to bother Ol’ Pete: he struck out Tony Lazzeri to end the Yankee threat. The veteran righthander pitched two more scoreless innings to close out the win and deliver the Cards their first World Series title.

1927: Angry Pittsburgh Manager Benches Future Hall of Famer

The manager of the ’27 Pirates was a fella named Donie Bush (first name pronounced like OWN-KNEE). Bush was a tough little guy who had been the shortstop and leadoff for the Tigers in the Ty Cobb days. He was a little man, but he had a big personality and a large chip on his shoulder. Bush ran his team like a platoon and he was the general. In 1927 that tough little guy let his stubborn ego rule his head, and it led to one of the most famous benchings in baseball history.

Hazen “Kiki” Cuyler was born in Harrisville, Michigan. His first professional job as a ballplayer was with the Bay City Wolves. He could always do one thing: hit the ball. In 1925 he hit .357 and led the league in runs scored and triples. It was his second straight season hitting over .350, and it wasn’t a fluke — Cuyler hit .321 in his 18-year career. He was one some of the best teams in the National League in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a member of the second All-Star team ever assembled, in 1934. But he was also strong-headed, which is why he clashed with Bush.

In 1927 during a game in July, Cuyler hit a line drive in the gap and cruised into second with a double. The only problem was that the baseball was waiting for him and he was tagged out. Cuyler had not ran hard enough out of the box and was easily thrown out. Bush was incensed and pulled his star outfielder from the game. He benched Cuyler and informed him that he wouldn’t be back in his lineup until he thought he was ready. A few days passed, and Cuyler was still on the bench. His batting average was over .320 and the Pirates were in a pennant race, but Bush wouldn’t put a “lazy” ballplayer in his lineup. Cuyler eventually got a few starts in August, but sporadically. He and Bush bickered, Cuyler even left the team for a while. He played his last game of the season in the first week of September. When the Pirates won the pennant, most people figured Bush would write Cuyler’s name in the lineup for the World Series. But he didn’t. Cuyler sat on the bench, he didn’t even dress for one game that was played in New York. The Bucs were swept by the Yanks, one of the greatest teams in history.

Bush got his way and the Pirates traded Cuyler to the Cubs in the off-season. He went on to play 11 more seasons, hitting .300 almost all the time. His brilliance was a reminder to the Pirates every time Cuyler faced them in the future. Bush was fired by the Pirates after the 1929 season. He never managed another team to a pennant.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.